Anyone who says Nick Cave is in need of a career resurrection is full of shit. Rather than liken Cave to the title figure of his fantastic new album -- the Biblical Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead -- a discerning listen can trace this record’s evolution to the past 24 years that have defined Cave’s career. From the junkie vocalist of the troubling post-punk collective Birthday Party, to the malignant Elvis doppelgänger of the early Bad Seeds albums, to the lovelorn crooner of murder ballads who enlisted a choir and then grew out his hair and started a garage band, Nick Cave has been one of the most consistent and important songwriters of the past two decades.
Though Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! retains the same perverse, menacing, and mysterious sound that we have come to expect from Cave’s songs, the album is a step forward for the Bad Seeds. Melding the roiling garage rock intensity of last year’s side project Grinderman with the more melodic duende of recent Bad Seeds offerings, Cave has come up with an album rife with sex, religious imagery, and the ugliness of humanity that you can dance along with.
While Cave has always been concerned with being literate in his lyrics, he has described this album as “a hemorrhaging of words and ideas,” and that statement is no more apparent than on the opening title track. Cave re-imagines Lazarus resurrected in the late-‘70s, visiting New York and San Francisco in their pre-AIDS splendor. As a Hammond whirls over a funky bassline, Cave is in raving preacher mode, sputtering apocalyptic visions of Lazarus descending into a haze of sex and drugs. But here Cave takes himself less seriously than in the past, and the lyrics are delivered with a wry cynicism. When he shouts “But Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene/ I mean he, he never asked to be raised up from the tomb/ I mean no one actually asked him to forsake his dream,” it is with a raised eyebrow and tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The groove continues over the next two tracks, “Today’s Lesson” and “Moonland.” While the former shares the infectious irony of “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!,” the latter finds Cave as the sinister lothario. “I’m not your favorite lover,” Cave growls over the spare song, filled with tabla and an ominous bassline. It is the quintessential Nick Cave song about sexual temptation juxtaposed with the stark solitude of an individual aching, but unable, to make connections in a barren landscape.
This album is not just a one-man show. The Bad Seeds have evolved into a vessel that mimics Cave’s fury and finesse. Restrained in some spots, eruptive in others, the band matches Cave’s vocals in intensity and versatility. “Night of the Lotus Eaters” rides a simple loop for its entirety, punctuated with bursts of conga, fuzz, and finger cymbals. “Albert Goes West” is an eruptive piece of garage rock á la Grinderman, and on “We Call Upon the Author,” the band rocks as Cave drops words like “prolix,” “jejune,” and “myxomatoid” into a pop song.
With 11 great tracks, it is hard to pick a stand-out, but “Jesus of the Moon” is a stunner. Once again writing confessionals, Cave questions temptation and fidelity as he steps out into the night, leaving a lover “curled up like a child” in the St. James Hotel. The song is the perfect balance of the delicate ballads Cave wrote for most of the ‘90s and the propulsive tempos he had returned to more recently.
One of my friends said he couldn't believe that he learned so much about American music from an Australian, and Nick Cave scores again with his blend of Leonard Cohen lyricism, the fury of The Stooges, and the backwoods sentiment of Mississippi John Hurt. On Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, rock, country, blues, and post-punk rhythms meld with Cave’s lyrics on sex, death, God, and America to create what could be one of his most perfect albums yet.